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His Truth Still Marches On: A Pastoral Response to the Woes of Willow Creek Community Church, Part 1 James E. Ward Jr.


This has been a tough week for the Body of Christ and for me. Along with many others, my heart is broken by the ruinous reports concerning Willow Creek Community Church. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Bill Hybels on a few occasions (What a nice guy!). I’ve also attended many events on the Willow campus in Barrington, which is just a short drive from my home.

It is undeniable that God has used Bill and Willow Creek for His glory, to give hope to many hopeless individuals. People around the world are significantly better off because of Bill’s vision to start a ministry that would make a difference in the world. In light of the most unfortunate recent news, I believe it is important to remain balanced in our conversations about Bill and Willow Creek Church. We all know how the courts of public opinion are often void of truth, and do not take into consideration the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23).

However, the countless testimonies of the wonderful things accomplished by the Willow Community, must not be leveraged as bargaining chips to dismiss the vile nature of sexual misconduct. What has happened is shameful. Willow Creek has grossly misrepresented the One it exists to proclaim. Sin is sin anywhere you go, and must be accounted for regardless of who commits it.

Along with the historical abuses within Catholic churches and many independent churches, these are the kinds of incidents that cause non-Christians to think that Christians are hypocrites. These are the reasons many people use to justify why they don’t attend church anymore and don’t believe that church is relevant. Willow’s challenge is the challenge of every pastor and church leader. It’s hurtful to us all, but most hurtful to the eternal salvation of those who still need to come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Why I’m Speaking Out

I am not writing to simply add my thoughts to the copious conversations already happening concerning Willow’s plight. I am not writing to criticize the leadership of Willow, although I vehemently condemn sin, their oversights, and the victimization of women in all forms. It is not my intent to posture myself as being any more righteous than Bill or any Board member at Willow.

I am writing for two reasons. First and foremost, to defend the honor of the holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And secondly, to encourage and strengthen Christians and non-Christians who are deeply disappointed, discouraged, or disillusioned by the moral implosion of one of America’s most influential evangelical churches. Willow is a ministry that has become a spiritual and social icon. A ministry to which so many global leaders have looked as a model of what to do, but has now become a model of what not to do.

Strike the Shepherd

Similar to Bill, I too am the founder and Pastor of a great church in the North suburbs of Chicago. Despite his apparent grievous mistakes, as far as I know Bill has not renounced his Christian faith which means he’s still my brother in Christ. In dealing with these matters, I am frequently reminded of David’s noble attitude toward King Saul, even when Saul’s actions were ignoble (1 Samuel 24:6-7). I want to be careful in what I say concerning Bill and the Willow Community, and I would caution us all to do the same.

Just prior to His crucifixion, Jesus tells His disciples:

“All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ (Matthew 26:31).

Jesus clearly explains the repercussions of the shepherd’s demise and how it affects the sheep. Throughout Scripture, God uses the metaphor of shepherds and sheep to represent His relationship with Israel, Christ’s relationship with the Church, and a Pastor’s relationship with his/her congregation.

The fastest way to devastate the flock is to strike the shepherd. To eliminate the one who carries the chief responsibility of protecting and caring for the sheep. I want to remind you that the devil knows this and is not an innocent bystander in this ordeal.

Jesus was referring to His own ensuing death on the cross. But notice, when He would be taken away, His followers would be made to stumble and would scatter. Sheep are rather helpless and defenseless creatures, incapable of feeding themselves, leading themselves, or protecting themselves. When He ascended, Jesus left shepherds or pastors according to His own heart to feed His people with knowledge and understanding (Jeremiah 3:15).

In contrast to a shepherd being taken away, Jesus also explains what happens when a good and faithful shepherd remains.

The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep (John 10:10-11 NKJV).

As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep (John 10:15 NKJV).

A good and faithful shepherd exists to ensure that the sheep under his care experiences abundant life. The shepherd is not only willing to risk his own life to protect his sheep, he will gladly sacrifice his life for them even if it means death.

This is exactly how Jesus leads His people, and is the kind of leadership He requires for each of us as pastors, as opposed to being hirelings. This is the kind of pastoral leadership congregations deserve and should not be without. Caring for the souls of people is a humbling privilege and not an entitlement.

[Part 1 of 3]

James E. Ward Jr. is a pastor, author, and entrepreneur who speaks nationally and internationally on cultural and spiritual issues. James is pastor and founder of INSIGHT Church in the north Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL.

His Truth Still Marches On: A Pastoral Response to the Woes of Willow Creek Community Church, Part 2 James E. Ward Jr.


Celebrity Pop-Culture’s Influence on Churches

It deeply saddens me that in many (not all) contemporary churches, it seems that the goal of pastoral leadership is to be a successful CEO, a well-known speaker, or a great motivational coach. In some cases, I believe churches have become nothing more than faith-based corporations built on Biblical success principles, instead of modeling the New Testament Church seen in the Acts of the Apostles.

Churches need financial resources like any other organization to exist, but it seems that church revenue is now more important than repentance and revival. That numerical church growth is more important than the people’s spiritual growth. That leadership gifting is more important than love, management more important than mercy, and good deeds more important than doctrine and discipleship. I believe the Church overall is once again in great need of reform and true revival.

The time has come for all of us as church leaders to really ask ourselves and each other, “What are we really doing? What are we really about?” I’m not against these things, but just maybe it’s time to turn off the LED lights, turn off the smoke machines, and suspend church programs, to blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, and call a solemn assembly (Joel 2:15).

I believe the Church has been so influenced by mainstream celebrity pop-culture, that having a pastor serve as a faithful shepherd who lives like Christ and gives his life for the sheep is no longer good enough. It could be that the people are demanding more, but really need less.

The Greatest Pastoral Counsel Ever

In all my years of preparation for ministry and formal theological training, of all the books I’ve read and conferences I’ve attended, the greatest pastoral counsel I’ve ever heard came from my father-in-law, Pastor Carlton Arthurs. Pastor Arthurs has endured many decades of ministry with impeccable integrity and scandal-free ministry. He’s not the most popular preacher and he doesn’t have the largest church, but he’s the most Christ-like man I’ve ever met. I was favored by God to have answered my call to ministry under his care.

He trained those of us under his apostolic oversight to embrace two essential core values in pastoral leadership. His voice still rings in my head every single day, “James, we must be pastors with whom God’s people are safe!” I often marveled at the fact that he didn’t say successful pastors, wealthy pastors, pastors skilled in business, or popular pastors, but pastors who could be entrusted with the safety of God’s people.

His second admonition to his young pastors was this: “Before we do anything to bring reproach on the name of the Lord, we’ll quit the ministry and put padlocks on the front doors of the church.”

Pastor Arthurs was very stern and very clear. Integrity in ministry must never be compromised, and lack of integrity would not be tolerated under any circumstances. To this very day, His words more than anything else I have heard have shaped our ministry, and has drawn the much-needed boundaries to keep us from going where we mustn’t go. Both in our personal and public lives.

To this day, he and several others around us have complete access to our lives. They possess apostolic authority as prescribed in Scripture to hold us accountable for our actions, and remove us from ministry altogether at the slightest hint of unacceptable behavior. Every Pastor needs apostolic leaders who are capable of saving them from themselves if necessary, and protecting God’s people from their known and unknown character flaws and any undesirable tendencies.

[Part 2 of 3]

James E. Ward Jr. is a pastor, author, and entrepreneur who speaks nationally and internationally on cultural and spiritual issues. James is pastor and founder of INSIGHT Church in the north Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL.

His Truth Still Marches On: A Pastoral Response to the Woes of Willow Creek Community Church, Part 3 James E. Ward Jr.


Celebrate the Faithful!

For every unfortunate story of an embattled pastor and ministry, there are thousands of stories of those who are faithful that go untold. Similar to mainstream news media, the only stories that garner attention are those that are negative.

I’d like to remind us of the thousands of unknown, faithful pastors who have been married for 40, 50, or 60 years or more to the same husband or wife. I’d like to acknowledge the pastors who have maintained their integrity, and solemnly uphold the Biblical criteria of what a Pastor should be. Those who take seriously their oath and ordination to live by the following Biblical standards:

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil (1 Timothy 3:1-7 NKJV).

For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. (Titus 1:7-9 NKJV).

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, (Jude 1:24 NKJV).

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 NKJV).

But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14 NKJV).

We Still Exist!

To those who may be wondering, “Can church leaders still be trusted? Are there still good churches out there? Should I even bother to attend church anymore?” My answer to you is yes, yes, and yes! There are many faithful and trustworthy Pastors around you, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to live holy and represent Jesus on earth as God intended. We may not make the news often. We may not have best-selling books. We may not have thousands of church members or large church buildings with great financial resources, but we do exist!

We still hate sin, shun lies, and love righteousness. We still believe that there is nothing more seeker-friendly than sharing with seekers the need to repent of their personal sin and embrace the righteousness that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. We will not cast a stone, because we count ourselves among those most in need of God’s saving grace each day (1 Timothy 1:15).

We still delight in delivering sound Biblical doctrine upon which our lives, our families, and our nation can be built. We still esteem the holy and precious name of Jesus as the greatest name on earth! We still welcome the fullness of the Holy Spirit and His gifts, who empowers us to live holy as true witnesses for Christ in the earth. We need Him and are unashamed of Him! We still have no desire for the things of this world and have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). We still believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ that secures eternal life with Him and rescues people from the eternal flames of hell.

We still believe that the grace of God is not primarily intended to cover our sins, but to keep us from sinning. That the true grace message is a message synonymous with a message about Christ-like character and holiness unto the Lord. That the grace of God empowers us to flee sexual immorality as did Joseph (1 Corinthians 6:18; Genesis 39:12). We know that Jesus our High Priest is powerful enough to keep us from falling when we entrust ourselves completely to Him.

His Truth Still Marches On!

So where do we go from here? In the chronicles of time, Willow Creek will not be known as the greatest tragedy in Christendom. Unfortunately, Christianity has had a history of scandals, moral failures, and sinful deeds that serve to remind us of our great need for a Savior. The Bible is full of various accounts and stories of God’s forgiveness, redemption, and enduring love. The Scriptures remind us that God is somewhat doing the best He can with what He has to work with on earth. People like me. People like you. People like Bill Hybels.

May Bill and his family, the Willow Creek Community, and those affected by this great tragedy heal and find peace in God’s infinite mercy and love. May Christians and non-Christians not lose faith in the Church of Jesus Christ because of its flaws and failures.

I’ll leave you with this exhortation—to turn your eyes upon Jesus! Not me, not Bill, not the Pope, not anyone.

Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 NKJV).

Friends God is faithful. He changes not. His truth still marches on!

[Part 3 of 3]

James E. Ward Jr. is a pastor, author, and entrepreneur who speaks nationally and internationally on cultural and spiritual issues. James is pastor and founder of INSIGHT Church in the north Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL.

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